I often find the Washington Post fact checker to provide a very useful service, but on occasion they mess things up, usually by hitting an innocent party with too many Pinocchios in the interest of seeming balanced.
This was the case in their assignment of three (out of four) Pinocchios to the recent MarketWatch column on President Obama’s actual spending record. The Post makes one important correction to the MarketWatch analysis, but that doesn’t change the qualitative result that relative to past presidents, Obama has been anything but a big spender. And given the outlandishly loud rhetoric from conservatives to the contrary, I’m not sure even one Pinocchio is warranted. (Note that PolitiFact.com rated the MarketWatch column as “mostly true.”)
In case you’ve missed this scintillating discussion, the issue here is the rate of spending under President Obama’s tenure. MarketWatch (MW) came up with 1.4% per year, 2009-13; the WaPo gets 3.3%. I’ll explain the difference in a moment, but even if you go with the WaPo, President Obama’s spending record is still the lowest annual rate since Eisenhower (and “no,” I’m not saying that’s great either—no wonder we’re stuck in slog mode—but that’s not for his lack of trying to pass more job creation measures).
The difference mostly comes from how you decide to assign different spending programs in 2009. That year’s spending was inflated by a lot of stuff related to the Great Recession and financial rescue, so it’s a high base, but it’s still the completely legitimate base since the budget signed by the President doesn’t take over until 2010 (and MW assigns 2009 stimulus spending and some other approps from that year to Obama).
The WaPo gets their 3.3%, 2009-13 by re-assigning some of the 2009 TARP spending to Obama, a slightly peculiar choice given that this was clearly a Bush program, and again, the 2009 base is the base. Still, WaPo has a point in that a) the 2009 TARP estimate turned out to be too high (giving President Obama a high spending perch to come down from) , and b) later budgets’ adjustments to the TARP took the spending down as estimates began to reflect far fewer bank losses than expected. That said, MW’s using official budget numbers and by those numbers, the Obama administration legitimately gets credit for effective management of the TARP. That is not the stuff of Pinocchios!
On the other hand, the WaPo is correct that MW’s endpoint in 2013 is biased down, since MW uses the CBO “current law” outlays for that year instead of CBO’s score of the President’s actual budget request.
When you plug that in, instead of MW’s 1.4% spending growth per year, you get 2.4%. Again, no big whoop in historical terms.
Finally, as the WaPo suggests, a more accurate way to do all of the above is to adjust for inflation and population growth. I did so since Reagan and the historical results don’t change (though now Obama ties Clinton for lowest real spending). But as the figure shows, after the ramp up 2008-09, real spending declines 0.5% per year! That’s austerity folks, imposed by conservatives’ refusal to adapt measures like the American Jobs Act.
Note: I used MW’s nominal budget numbers for 2008-12, and the WaPo’s # for 2013 (see text).
I’ve tried to give the WaPo credit where it’s due here, but they should realize that they’ve graded this far too harshly. You wanna go with 1P, go ahead—you’re right about the endpoint. But given the facts of the case, even under your own measure, and especially amidst the clamoring rhetoric to the contrary claiming the President is the biggest spender ever, 3P’s has no credibility.
I respectfully request that they revisit this one.
(H/t’s: RK, KM)